In Defence of the Art Mall

In Defence of the Art Mall
Author Bio

This essay first appeared in AAA's previous publication Field Notes, Issue 04. To read the "Note from the Editors" for full context, please click here.


In 2009, the "art mall" announced itself in Hong Kong as a new utopian proposal, appearing with wild eyes and somewhat incoherent speech, as if emerging from the desert of ideas with a message. Announcing itself as "The World's First Art Mall," K11 Art Mall was born. Since 2009, parts of the proposal have even been strongly embraced in Hong Kong, but it is not entirely clear which parts, and, as always, the fragments of a utopian proposal do not amount to utopia. There are now four major art malls in Hong Kong: K11, Harbour City, Times Square, The Police Married Quarters, and also potentially the newly renovated Central Police Station. Given the rarity of new utopian proposals today, we have some responsibility to notice and perhaps even understand the message it carries. However, to do this will require some strenuous and at times hallucinatory dialectical thinking mixed with some sober historical analysis of recent events.

When the art mall was proposed in 2009, it was done so as a series of "multidimensional spaces" formulated by the equation "art x commerce."1 Perhaps the first step is to try to understand the terms of this equation. If these terms emerge from anywhere, they emerge not from a specific person or event, but from a set of contradictions between art and the twentieth century commodity. As the story goes: art developed in dialectical relationship to the commodity. Simply put, the things that artists produce have historically claimed value beyond what someone at any given moment is willing to exchange for them, and yet art is exchanged and given value in precisely this way. So over the last century, different artistic movements made different dialectical bargains within this space of contradictions as it was enacted by the commodity and commodity culture, and these practices transformed that space of contradictions in diverse ways.

The story ends there, with an ellipsis (. . .), having exhausted much of its explanatory power. However, one of the minor characters for whom this story matters a lot, and who is found for most of the narrative somewhere in that ellipsis, is the architect. Architects enthusiastically have taken up the task of building the space of contradictions proper to art, and have themselves become minor authors in the genre of elaborating those contradictions. A partial list of spaces of contradiction proper to art would include the art museum, the commercial gallery, the cafe gallery, the fashion runway, the auction house showroom, and, of course, we might now add: the art mall. Each of these spaces contains architectural forms that partition its dialectical space and manage the friction of its contradictions in different ways. These are the "multidimensional spaces" K11 was talking about. The forces of cultural and commercial valuation flow through each space differently, are given different powers, are introduced to one another through different rituals, or are kept in different cages. There seems to be an ever-increasing diversity of the ways these forces can move.

This has proven to be especially true in Hong Kong, where a near absence of public art institutions has left the vacuum to be filled by anyone with a plan. If the art mall was made theoretically possible by the art-commodity dialectic, it was born and bred in this vacuum. Taxonomic credit for the invention of the term "art mall" goes to New World Development's Adrian Cheng Chi-kong, who opened K11 Art Mall in Hong Kong in 2009, followed by another one in Shanghai in 2013.2 Shanghai's K11 Art Mall made headlines earlier this year by exhibiting 40 original paintings by the French impressionist Claude Monet, the first ever exhibition of Monet in China. In Hong Kong, K11 just concluded its popular exhibition of a six-meter tall sculpture called Iron Panda, realised by Beijing artist Bi Heng in collaboration with Art Basel. In some stores in the K11 Art Mall, it is possible to "go to the cash register and also ring up a contemporary art piece that was hanging by the clothes."

Image: <i>Iron Panda</i>, Bi Heng.
Image: Iron Panda, Bi Heng. Courtesy of K11.

To better understand why the art mall requires dialectical thinking, and what it might mean to speak of the "dialectical space" of an art mall, let's compare the art museum and the fashion runway, and pay close attention to the way they are organised. In the art museum, there are two distinct zones: the first zone is the public gallery where art objects are placed into the circulatory currents of culture. Here they can be put into relation with other forms of cultural production or taken up by history as new characters in the stories we tell about the past. In the second zone of the art museum are the museum's offices where the objects are bought and sold behind closed doors. Here, they are placed into the circulatory currents of capital and, if they were looted from weak nations in colonial escapades for instance, the circulatory currents of political power. The architect of an art museum must keep these spaces completely separate, as if they were combustible materials, and, hence, the bargain that is struck is an armistice that necessitates a separate physical container for each term in the art-commodity dialectic.3

The opposite diagram is drawn by the fashion runway. The runway, of course, is a loop (shaped like a T) that circulates its objects through a seated audience. The audience consists of people who might be cultural or commercial conduits, and rather than circulating through an art museum, here the museum circulates through them. Part of the form of the fashion runway's dialectical bargain is that objects are allowed to be valued simultaneously in a cultural and commercial way. Fashion is traditionally regarded as putting the least distance between these things; however, they nevertheless remain separate and indissoluble terms in the same dialectical space. The architecture of the runway does not assume to know who is in the audience and which role they are playing: dealer or critic. Of course, they are often one in the same person, and unlike the art museum, the architecture of the runway allows for this.

Sketching out these different spatial diagrams, there seem to be two main questions that need to be asked to differentiate the art mall's proposal from other similar proposals: 1. Who does the art mall suppose I am when I go there? In other words, am I the critic, the dealer, the artist, the shopper, or some other invented character? 2. What does the art mall suppose art to be? In other words, where if anywhere in the abstract dialectical space of the art-commodity do they build their concrete partitions?

At this stage, we can no longer rely on theory to make progress, but instead need to look into the wild eyes of a real case study, and rather than K11, it is more revealing to look at Times Square Mall in Causeway Bay, whose answers to these questions come out of actual historical events. While Times Square does not use the term "art mall" to describe itself, and is different from K11 in some ways, these differences are not taxonomically significant. Times Square states the same ambitions toward art as K11 does, describing itself as providing "world-class" arts programming that increases "understanding of the arts" in Hong Kong,4 but even more significantly, unlike K11, Times Square has, as a part of its Deed of Dedication, the obligation to provide a public venue for cultural exhibitions: it is legally obliged to be an art mall.

So how does a luxury mall find itself in the position of having a public mandate to provide space for art exhibitions? And what exactly are the implications of requiring a luxury mall to work for the public providing access to culture?

The answer to the first question is that many of Hong Kong's public spaces (the number is in the hundreds) are privately owned: they are called Public Open Space in Private Development or POSPD.5 In exchange for providing public space, additional floor space for development is granted by the government. Many significant public spaces in Hong Kong fall into this category, and some of them come with a mandate to provide "passive recreation" including "temporary exhibitions." Times Square is one of these. The podium of the building is lifted to form a large street-level plaza through which about 150,000 people pass every day.

But the plaza has not always been seen as culturally significant, and, in fact, it is possible to date precisely the moment that this started to change: March 5, 2008. This is the date on which it was revealed in a government press release that the plaza was public rather than private, a fact that Times Square treated as something of a secret since its opening in 1994, and which immediately transformed it into a symbol of the private theft of public space in the city.6 The story was originally broken by a local radio show that had been receiving a large number of calls from people who claimed that Times Square security guards were preventing them from stopping, sitting, or gathering in groups as they moved through the square.7 The complaints led to questions, and government representatives confirmed that the plaza was actually the legal equivalent of public space in Hong Kong. This was a scandal not only because of the harassment by security guards, but also because Times Square had been leasing a part of the public space to Starbucks since 2003, making up to HK$124,000 per day on the deal.8

These revelations were followed immediately by a series of art interventions launched by local artists to reclaim the public space of the mall called "Hijacking the Public Sphere."9 In general, the interventions staged a series of performances meant to explore the boundary of what a body could do in the so-called public space of the private mall. For example, one group performed on the malls escalators until it was thrown out by security guards. Then a picnic was enjoyed in the middle of the square by local artists and curators Jeff Leung, Jaspar Lau, Lee Kai Chung, Lam Tung Pang, Lee Kit, Luke Ching, Leung Po Shan, Man Ng, and Thompson Tong.

Image: Picnic by local artists and curators.
Image: Picnic by local artists and curators. Courtesy of Leung Po Shan Anthony.

At some point, a sofa was deposited where the "no sitting" signs used to be. Then in April, a pirate radio station called Citizen's Radio started broadcasting from the plaza.10 In September, an acrobat performed with a piece of cloth that said "Times Square pays back the money," and the local political group "Slow Development Hong Kong" built a fake celery farm in the middle of the square to protest the Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou Express Rail Link.11 For a helpful timeline of un-invited artist interventions in Times Square, as well as invited artist exhibitions organised by the mall, see the timeline compiled by Leung Po Shan Anthony.12 The scene this timeline sets is a somewhat surreal one. Wandering through the mall at this time, one would have seen two very different aesthetic projects in the plaza, representing two very different positions in the art-commodity dialectic: the first being the spontaneous art interventions that persistently challenged the public-ness of the plaza's public space, and the second being that of the somewhat absentee artists whose work Times Square continued to install in the plaza on behalf of the public. While the mall's managers lived in terror of their un-invited dialectical other, and frequently called the police,13 it's not hard to imagine how exciting it would have been to see the plaza transformed from a moving-sidewalk of highly policed exhibitions into a scene of lively and productive cultural conflicts.

I would like to argue that it's a scene that gives us a glimpse of the utopian proposal of the art mall. If we were to close our eyes, forget about the police, the security guards, the cynicism of mall managers, the banality of their investors, and try to imagine this scene as a structural part of the utopian proposal of the art mall, rather than proof of its inevitable collapse, then the essential proposal of the art mall would be to finally accumulate all of the arts contradictions into one single un-mediated dialectical space. In this vision, the art mall is just the art museum exploded, so that its gift shop and gallery are dispersed homogeneously throughout a single structure without regard for any cultural conflicts that might result. This non-management of cultural conflict is precisely the utopian architectural proposal of the American mall: everything in one place. Hash pipes and baby carriages.14 In the wild utopian dreams of the art mall, Hello Kitty tells Claude Monet his paintings are blurry outside their adjacent storefronts. If this sounds like a nightmare to you, that's a common reaction to utopian proposals.

From this window, the answer to question two—what is art in an art mall?—does not seem to be difficult. Everything is art in an art mall. The form of the mall enforces this equivalence. The answer to question one, however—who does the art mall think I am?—requires us to look at the actual art that the art malls exhibit (for us) in public places.

A clear trend can be identified. Overwhelmingly, art in art malls is "cute."15 In the midst of the un-invited art interventions and performances of 2008, Times Square exhibited Carrie Chau's very cute illustrations made into enormous cute sculptures. These cute exhibitions all have two things in common: first, they are large in size16 (usually larger than a human) and, second, they have faces with big eyes and small (or absent) mouths. Florentijn Hofman's 16.5 meter inflatable "Rubber Duck" installed by another art mall—the Harbour City mall—in Hong Kong's harbor is a good example. Not only was it cute, inviting us with its eyes to handle it physically and make it squeak, its bigness made the entire city cute by reducing Victoria Harbor to the size of a bathtub.

Image: <i>Indigo Child</i>, Carrie Chau.
Image: Indigo Child, Carrie Chau. Courtesy of Times Square.
Image: <i>Rubber Duck</i>, Florentijn Hofman.
Image: Rubber Duck, Florentijn Hofman. Courtesy of Harbour City Hong Kong.

For Cultural theorist, Sianne Ngai, the aesthetic of cuteness is inextricable from the commodity:

Cuteness might be regarded as an intensification of commodity fetishism's kitschy phantasmatic logic but also as a way of revising it by adding yet another layer of fantasy. For as an aesthetic in which the object is imagined not just as an animated being but as one inviting the aesthetic subject to handle it physically, the cute speaks to a desire to recover what Marx calls the "coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects" that becomes immediately extinguished in exchange.17

In other words, with their big inviting eyes and small powerless mouths, these cute figures stare at us longingly from that space of ambiguity somewhere between autonomous material objects and formless vessels of exchange value that, we must add, is identical to the space between art and commodities we have been examining.18 In the cute object, the art mall has found a fellow traveler of the same dialectical space.

In the eyes of the art mall, we must all then be the people who like cute art because we have been traumatised by the commodity in precisely this way. We can't escape our superficial relationships with material objects; we take refuge in sentimentality to buffer ourselves against the coldness of the objects in our lives, and in our search for companionship through the endless aisles of dead matter that ceaselessly subject us to unattainable normative standards, we are drawn to anything that calls our name, but cannot speak.

The art mall may or may not be right on this point, but it is important to show that the tsunami of cute art that has hit this city, which even permeates the Hong Kong Government,19 is not the art mall's invention and not necessarily a part of its utopian proposal. Today, we are confronted by a type of art mall whose position in the art-commodity dialectic is its own gesamtkunstwerk; however, there are other imaginable positions that could have radically different aesthetic projects. More importantly, it is crucial to understand that the function of a utopian proposal is not to imagine what the future could look like for us so that we can say yes or no. Rather, the utopian proposal shows us the limits of our own imaginations, or what is impossible to imagine.20 Friction between the utopian proposal and its conditions of possibility tells us something about the world we live in, and the limits of our spatial and political imagination beyond which there are no proposals, only the dead forms of traditional types.



1. As has often been pointed out by Rosalyn Deutsche and others, the great crime committed by Hans Haacke through his institutional critiques, most notably at his solo show at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971, was to cross contaminate these two zones.
2. In somewhat incoherent speech, the Times Square Mall describes its utopian proposal: "Promoting arts among the public audience is one of our committed efforts to enrich the quality of life of Hong Kong citizens, and a wide variety of cultural activities and arts exhibitions are organised to enhance people’s awareness and understanding of arts and cultures. Times Square also works closely with local and international artists to provide world-class performing arts programmes for our community and to become a quality destination for any lovers of arts." Times Square, "About Us." Accessed 22 October 2014:
3. K11 Concepts Limited, "About Page." Accessed 20 November 2013:
4. A. Tiffany, "Line between Galleries and Malls Blurs as art blossoms in Hong Kong," South China Morning Post, 12 January 2014.
5. "Hijacking the Public Sphere" was an event organised by In-Media as a part of the ChiE! Festival held between March 15 and April 27, 2008. See: L. Lau, "Hijacking the Public Sphere: Performance, Politics, and the Everyday Citizen at Hong Kong Times Square," Polymath, vol. 2, no. 3, Summer 2012.

6. Special thanks to Leung Po Shan who provided the timeline of artist interventions in Times Square. I have added the Times Square exhibitions to his timeline in order to provide a more complete survey of the art being shown in the plaza.
7. Or alternatively I once visited a mall in North America that placed a store selling criminal background checks (often required for job applications) next to a store selling mens' shoes and lotto tickets.  
8. A partial list of cute exhibitions: K11: 2014 Bi Heng "Iron Panda" exhibition, 2013 Choi Jeong Hwa "Love Sweet Life" exhibition, 2011 Tokidoki exhibition. Harbor City mall: 2014 KAWS "Clean Slate" exhibition, 2013 Florentijn Hofman "Rubber Duck" exhibition, 2012 Doraemon exhibition. Times Square: 2013 Yoskay Yamamoto "Submerged Exhibition," the 2013 Javier Gonzalez Burgos Exhibition, and the 2012 80th anniversary LEGO exhibition, etc.
9. The Government of Hong Kong SAR, "Government releases lists of public facilities in private developments," in Press Releases, Hong Kong, March 28, 2008.
10. Martin Heidegger described the aesthetic of bigness this way: "The gigantic is rather that through which the quantitative becomes a special quality and thus a remarkable kind of greatness." M. Heidegger, "The Age of the World Picture," in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, W. Lovitt, Ed., New York, Harper & Row, 1977, 129-143.

11. For a much more detailed and compelling argument see [10]. Ngai notes a similar observation made by Walter Benjamin in 1938 who also sees cuteness as the essence of the commodity: "If the soul of the commodity which Marx occasionally mentions in jest existed, it would be the most empathetic ever encountered in the realm of souls, for it would have to see in everyone the buyer in whose hand and house it wants to nestle."
12. The Government of Hong Kong SAR, "LCQ3: Public Open Space Reply by Secretary for Development Mrs Carrie Lam," inPress Releases, Hong Kong, March 5, 2008.
13. A beautiful example is the Hong Kong Government's "Big Waster," created as a public outreach campaign to reduce food waste. Probably the most ambitious project of cute aesthetics to date, (more ambitious than Murakami's DOB or the Los Angeles based artist KAWS) the Big Waster tries to be simultaneously cute and disgusting. To its very small mouth, which supposedly eats a lot, has been added a large drop of drool. See:

Image: The
Image: The "Big Waster" public outreach campaign. Courtesy of Food Wise Hong Kong.

14. D. Lee, "Pushy Times Square guards raise hackles," The Standard, March 5, 2008.
15. N. Gentle and Y. Tsui, "Mall Sued Over Public Space Rents Government Seeks Damages from Times Square for 'Excessive Profits'," South China Morning Post, June 18, 2008.
16. A. Leung, "Times Square threatens action if Citizens' Radio stages broadcast," South China Morning Post, April 25, 2008.
17. For an example of a utopian proposal that maps the political imaginary, see jazz musician Sun Ra's 1974 film Space is the Place. In this film it is easier for African Americans to imagine starting a new life on the planet Saturn than achieve racial and economic equality in the United States. For a more detailed account of utopian politics see Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Verso, 2007.
18. F. W. Fung and A. Nip, "Times Square Piazza a Real People's Forum Protesters and Performers Keep Mall Managers on their Toes," South China Morning Post, September 13, 2009.
19. A. Chiu, "Fine for Unlicensed Democracy Statue Activist Vows to Appeal Against a Court Order to Pay HK$2,000 in Landmark Prosecution Over a Tiananmen Square Commemorative 'Exhibit'," South China Morning Post, June 30, 2011.
20. S. Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.


Seth Denizen is a researcher and landscape architect currently teaching architecture at the University of Hong Kong.




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